Highsiding into history

Mad Grand Prix machines, outrageous parties and the birth of superbike racing... the 1980s were gloriously unsustainable

MotoGP 1980s

That the 1980s was a decade of excess should come as no surprise, because the 1980s was the child of the 1960s and 1970s. During the third decade of The Modern World, excess went fully mainstream, conquering every part of life, from music and business to advertising and motor sport.

In the world of motorcycle racing this appetite for excess created the nastiest Grand Prix bikes of all time and fuelled the last truly wild paddock parties, the entire show bankrolled by the sport’s new addiction: tobacco money.

Two-strokes had dominated the premier 500cc class since the mid-1970s. Those early two-stroke 500s produced perhaps 100bhp. By the late 1980s the bikes were making close to 180. Chassis engineering and tyres had also improved, but not nearly enough.

This super-abundance of engine performance took riders into a dark place: the age of the highside. There is no more agonising way to crash a Grand Prix bike than by going over the top – fired over the handlebars like a pebble fired from a catapult.

The dynamics of a highside are straightforward: engine torque exceeds traction, tyre starts to spin and slide, rider closes throttle to reduce torque, tyre regains traction, motorcycle jerks upright, rider is propelled over the top.

Highsides were caused by a number of underdeveloped technologies. The two-stroke V4s made by Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha produced torque in an unusual and unpredictable way, which caught out even the greatest riders of the era. Nowadays frame and swingarm flex is used to damp out some of the forces that contribute to a highside, but little was known of this concept in the 1980s. And tyre design – both compound and construction – could never quite keep up. Traction control, of course, was a long way in the future.

The immediate solution wasn’t technological, but human, or perhaps superhuman. The top teams hired former dirt-trackers from the USA and Australia; men who had earned a living by turning tyre-spinning mayhem into a glorious sideways ballet, via judicious use of the throttle. Freddie Spencer, Eddie Lawson, Kevin Schwantz, Wayne Rainey, Mick Doohan and Wayne Gardner all grew rich by transferring these sideways skills from dirt to asphalt.

However, not one of these superheroes got through the 1980s without suffering multiple broken bones from highside crashes.

There was only one Old World rider who regularly took the fight to the New World stars during this age of excess. Frenchman Christian Sarron finished third in the 500cc world championship in 1985 and 1989, but at a high price, breaking 50 bones in his hands alone, most of them through highside accidents.

“It was a nightmare to keep the front wheel down so you could accelerate effectively,” Sarron recalls. “We worked out that the only way to keep the front down was to spin the rear. But the two-stroke power was quite brutal; also quite unpredictable, so it was difficult to anticipate. All the power arrived suddenly, the rear tyre went sideways and you were thrown high into the air, maybe two metres above the ground, at 150kph. It wasn’t a good feeling. You were thinking, ‘What am I going to hit?’ Because you knew there was a chance to get really badly injured, especially if the bike landed on top of you – sometimes the bike was also flying. Once I had a slow highside and wasn’t injured, but then the bike landed on my hand. I stopped counting after 50 fractures in my wrists, hands and fingers.”

The 500s of the 1980s broke many riders, physically and psychologically. Even the most talented world champions had to dig deep within themselves to find the mental strength to survive the onslaught.

Lawson was the most successful rider of the decade, winning the 500 championship in 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1989. The Californian came to Europe after winning two US Superbike crowns, graduating from a pimped-up 1000cc four-stroke streetbike to a 500cc two-stroke Grand Prix racer. “I remember riding a 500 for the first time and thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to do this. Oh man, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew’.”

In 1989 Lawson became good friends with rookie Mick Doohan, also making the switch from superbikes to 500s. “Doohan was sort of the same way,” adds Lawson. “I remember him coming into my motorhome, going, ‘What do I do?’ He was practically in tears.”

Doohan suffered terribly in his earliest outings on a 500, starting with his first ride on a Honda NSR, at Suzuka in January 1989.

“I gave it a fistful going through the Esses, and as I shifted my weight from right to left, the rear just lit up,” recalls Doohan, who went on to win five consecutive 500 championships in the 1990s. “The thing had me off the side, so I was hanging onto the handlebars with both knees dragging on the road. I ran off the track and slammed into one of the big rubber bales they used at Suzuka. My face ended up in the dirt, while the bike got me in the back of the head. The impact broke my helmet open. That was my first wake-up call: ‘Wow, so they call this a motorcycle, do they?’”

THE PRESSURE OF racing these malevolent machines was released on Sunday nights, when those riders who weren’t  in hospital celebrated their survival in  raucous style.

“There was always a big sense of relief after the races, so we needed to let off steam,” says Gardner, the 1987 500 world champion. “After a race I’d be dying for a beer. Later there’d be a barbecue, or we would end up trashing my motorhome or someone else’s.”

There was plenty of boys-being-boys bad behaviour, from too much drinking and chasing women to ruining swimming pools and wrecking cars. The Brazilian Grand Prix was always the worst; or the best, depending on your point of view.

“I remember in 1988 when Marlboro Yamaha sacked Didier de Radigues at the last race in Brazil,” says Niall Mackenzie, an HB Honda rider at the time. “Everyone was jumping in the hotel pool fully clothed, so the water was bright red with dye. Didier was in there, asking one of the big Marlboro bosses to give him a hand getting out, just so he could pull him in too. Then all of us went to this enormous club called Zoom. The whole paddock would be in there, although the paddock was like that every Sunday night. We’d congregate in one place and party hard, then hate each other at the next race: deadly rivals.”

Schwantz remembers a big Sunday night with Lawson, after the 1989 Austrian GP at the Salzburgring, when Porsche had been foolish enough to lend cars to several of the top riders.

“Eddie and I did a lap in this Porsche. Then there’s this big security guy, about eight feet tall: ‘What are you doing? You’re not supposed to do that.’ He goes to pull me out of the car, but I had the seatbelt on, so he couldn’t. Eddie’s laughing now, which pissed the guy off, so he’s slammed the door, shattered the window and the glass cuts my face. There’s blood gushing out, so we both unclip and go after this guy. He’s running, because there’s two kids half his size out to kick his ass, and Eddie kicks him in the nuts as hard as he can. After that we went into town. We came back to the paddock at three in the morning. We’d probably had just a little bit too much to drink, and Eddie stuck his Porsche in the ditch, with my coaching.”


THE PEOPLE PAYING for all this on-track action and off-piste misbehaviour were the captains of the tobacco industry: a dangerous sport underwritten by a dangerous product. Marlboro was the first cigarette brand in motorcycle racing, in the 1970s. During the 1980s the 500 grid came to resemble a tobacconist: Marlboro, Rothmans, Gauloises, Lucky Strike, HB and others.

These brands spent many millions reflecting the glamour of racing onto their products. The paddock grew fat on their largesse, which bought hospitality units, smart team uniforms and endless deluxe dinners, as well as those outrageously overpowered motorcycles.

Excess was everywhere, because that was how things were done in the 1980s, even outside Grand Prix racing. In 1988 a new road-racing world championship – a rival to the well-established 500cc class – was born. Superbike racing had become a big deal in the USA during the 1970s, when brash Californian Steve McLaughlin won the first Daytona superbike race. McLaughlin spent much of the next decade turning superbikes into a world championship, which required plenty of wining and dining, especially in Japan, where he needed to get the manufacturers on side.

McLaughlin’s biggest concern was convincing Honda to take his championship seriously. He finally got what he wanted during an epic Tokyo drinking session with Michihiko Aika, chief of Honda’s racing division.

“We go out with Aika and he says we’re going to drink Scotch,” McLaughlin recalls. “I say, ‘No, we’re drinking Russian airplane fuel.’ I tell the bartender to line up five shots of vodka and I knock them back. Naturally, because this is a macho deal, they have to do the same. Aika has got seven Honda guys with him; after the third shot one of them falls off his barstool. A while later Aika and I are the only two standing. That was a bonding thing and it cemented my deal at Honda – from that point I was golden.”

The first World Superbike Championship was won by American Fred Merkel, who looked like he had walked off the set of Baywatch. Flyin’ Fred went racing with the title of an AC/DC album emblazoned on the back of his Arai: “If you want blood, you’ve got it”. He could talk the talk as well as he walked the walk, which was what it was all about in the 1980s.

Merkel won the 1988 superbike title aboard a Honda RC30, an over-the-counter motorcycle – nuts-and-bolts proof that street bikes had ridden the same road of excess blazed by Grand Prix machinery.

In 1980 the best bike a speed-crazed street rider could buy was Suzuki’s GS1000, an air-cooled, 997cc four-cylinder four-stroke. The GS produced 90bhp, weighed 255 kilos and ran on a four-inch rear tyre. In 1987 Honda launched the RC30, the result of the McLaughlin/Aika booze-up. The liquid-cooled 748cc V4 four-stroke (World Superbike was a 750cc series) produced 120bhp, weighed 220 kilos and ran on a seven-inch rear tyre. The RC30 was essentially a four-stroke Grand Prix bike for the road.

Spencer had started the 1980s racing a Honda CB900F, just like Suzuki’s GS, and later raced an RC30. “While race bikes were improving the superbikes were getting closer to the race bikes,” says Spencer, who won the 500cc world title twice between his earlier and later superbike outings. “What I didn’t like about the early superbikes was that the bike was the limiting factor and not you; you could only go as fast as the bike would allow you to go. The RC30 was maybe 85 per cent towards a GP bike. It absolutely felt like a proper race bike.”

While four-stroke street bikes were emulating the performance of GP bikes, the 1980s were also the last hurrah of the high- performance two-stroke streetbike. Suzuki and Yamaha knew that the writing – or to be more precise, the anti-pollution legislation – was on the wall for the two-stroke, so they had one final blowout, launching street replicas of their 500 Grand Prix bikes. Suzuki’s RG500 and Yamaha’s RD500LC were cult machines that personified the 1980s: gloriously reckless, disgracefully unsustainable and huge fun.